The Black and Green Atlantic: Similar, but Different, and Still Much Left to Discover

Going into this semester, I did not really know what to expect. As I had no experience with Irish or black texts, jumping into dense theoretical materials was a challenge. It is certainly not the easiest to think of things abstractly. Looking back at the blog posts from the first few weeks, I remember wondering when all of the texts that we were reading would make sense and come together to form “The Black and Green Atlantic.” 

In my midterm paper, I wrote about the shared sense of placelessness between the Irish and the blacks, as seen in Gulliver’s Travels and McCann’s TransAtlantic. In that part of the course, I was still asking whether or not the two groups should be allowed to make comparisons. We were dealing with a lot of Irish texts that were using problematic comparisons, such as “wage slavery.”  I thought that determining whether the groups would be allowed to gesture would be a definite yes or no, but I came to realize that it is not that simple a question. Our course objective was not to determine whether these texts were allowed to exist, but to grapple with the texts that do exist and ask “why?” This is when I began to rethink the whole way that I was looking at the course. Comparisons can, and have been made. I started thinking about the gestures found within the texts and asking whether they were appropriate or not and why. In order for them to be appropriate and to work, the comparison must be just that—a comparison, not a proclamation of being exactly the same. As we saw in The Commitments, it is possible for the Irish to make gestures towards black culture in a show of solidarity. These gestures, however, only work to a certain extent, and it is when you completely collapse the two identities that the gesture falls apart and becomes problematic. While the Irish and Black experiences contain general similarities, they are not the same and cannot be equated. The differences in their cultures and their travels work to create a divide between the two identities. 

This semester flew by, and I feel that we have learned and covered so much material on the Black and Green Atlantic. Yet, there is still material that we were just unable to fit into the course, and there is so much more to be discovered in the Atlantic. The flurry of questions and puzzling scenes in “An Octoroon” represented to me many of the questions that remain and how this topic has endless possibilities. For me, questions remain on the role of Irish Americans and where they fit into the mix. Joey gave us a taste of that in The Commitments, but I wish that we had been able to discuss where they fit into the greater scheme of this journey. Who claims the Irish Americans? Why do their gestures always seem to be problematic? Even in “An Octoroon,” Jacob-Jenkins erases Boucicault’s Irish identity and he is just left “white.” Could we consider Boucicault an Irish American? What does this say about Irish Americans today? Overall, I am grateful for the great discussions we were able to have this semester. I feel that we took our own journey across the Atlantic this semester—a journey that will certainly affect the way that I view and question gestures going forward.

Irish vs. Irish American in The Commitments

Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments gave us an opportunity to explore and compare the different ways that Irish Americans and Irish gesture towards the black experience. As Prof. Kinyon mentioned in class, Joey could be taken to be an Irish American. After all, he has supposedly spent a good amount of time touring in America with different legendary soul singers. And, once one crosses the Atlantic, they are never the same again. 

While Joey’s gestures and connection seem to be the strongest at first, the initial illusion eventually fades and the audience realizes that his comparisons fall short in often very problematic ways. When he makes gestures toward the black experience and soul music, he is more concerned with giving himself power than making genuine connections and trying to establish a link between his Irish American identity and the black American identity. We are not sure whether Joey even put much time into trying to understand the music and black culture before he started playing soul music. He wants to be an authority and be in charge of the group and claiming to be the authority on the black experience allows him to do that.  His own privileged background is far from the suffering of African Americans, yet he still romanticizes the idea of being black. Joey hijacks black culture and tries to assimilate into the black identity, even stating that he wishes he was born black. In trying to make the line between Irish American and African American indistinguishable, Joey misunderstands the black experience. These inappropriate statements and connections between the two experiences lead to his inability to tap into the connection that the other band members have. 

The others in the band can be taken to represent the Irish. Unlike Joey, the band members seem to be gesturing to African Americans for a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. They hope to bring soul to Ireland and all work very hard and dedicate a lot of time and effort to trying to learn this type of music before they even start to play together. They immerse themselves in the culture of the music so that they can learn its intricacies and be better suited to play it. As a result, these members are able to make a connection with the music and the African American experience. They also do not merely collapse the African American and Irish experience. They seem to take soul music and also bring something uniquely Irish to it. This can perhaps be seen in the “Night Train” song, when they add Irish cities to the list of the American cities. They do not remove the cities, as they are not trying to erase or claim that their cities are the same as the others. Rather, they extend the city list and add theirs in an attempt to form a bond with the people across the Atlantic. While they seem to be able to access a deeper and more appropriate connection than Joey, their attempts still fall short in some places. As we mentioned, social class does not equal race and that is something that even Doyle failed to realize. No gesture by the Irish to the black experience is ever going to be completely perfect. They all will have their faults and fail in some way—and perhaps that is part of the reason why the band was destined to break apart. Nevertheless, the Irish gestures seem to be a closer and more respectful fit than those made by Irish Americans, such as Joey.

My Soul Isn’t Your Soul

In The Commitments, Jimmy attempts to stop some band members from smoking weed because “drugs aren’t soul” (Doyle 66). When the band counters that American soul musicians smoked marijuana, Joey the Lips Fagan takes over, saying, “Not true, Brother. Real Soul Brothers say no to the weed. All drugs. Soul says no” (67). Of course, as the band attempts to prove, Joey is wrong; Marvin Gaye, possibly the most famous Soul musician in history, used marijuana extensively, for example. On one hand, this exchange shows Joey’s false understanding of African-American music and musicians, later shown forcefully through his dismissal of jazz. However, more broadly, it shows the inadequacy of transferring black music directly to the Irish context. As bell hooks writes, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26). Joey’s assertion that real Soul brothers didn’t smoke weed shows an inability to understand black pain of oppression and the memory of slavery. He can recognize the political resistance offered within Soul music but cannot comprehend the pain that creates this resistance. One of the main reasons for drug use in the 1960s was escaping reality yet Joey cannot envision reasons why African-Americans would attempt to escape reality in the 1960s.

Rather than acknowledging that the experiences of the African-Americans when creating Soul music and the Irish when singing it are different, Joey and Jimmy attempt to homogenize the experiences. A heroin epidemic causes this anti-drug stance in Ireland. Drug use was a real problem in the context of Ireland in the 1980s but not so condemned in 1960s Black America. The Irish cannot attempt to properly take from black culture without recognizing the distinct history of African-American oppression. Our class-wide repulsion at the singing of “Chain Gang” is the best example of this homogenizing of experience. The Irish did not experience the chain gang. Yet, like the example of drugs, this discrepancy is glossed over by the band and black experience is mapped directly onto the Irish experience. Through this lens, the Irish performance of Soul music becomes appropriation, forgoing the potential for creating solidarity through similar feelings of oppression and placeless-ness. Without recognizing the context, The Commitments remove the important distinctions between the two experiences of oppression on different sides of the Atlantic which are necessary to avoid appropriation.

4/22 Discussion Questions

Concerning the differences between the movie and the story, is Joey really more credible in the movie? Or is he just discredited in different ways?

Why did the movie choose to show more of the aspects of Ireland and make less gestures towards African Americans? How would it have been different if the film was more like the book? If the book was more like the film? Would it change the audience’s reception of either?

Are gestures from the Irish destined to fall short or suffer some kind of problematic disconnect? In connecting themselves to the black experience, are they really trying to reject colonialism and failing to mimic the colonizers (Onkey 4)?




Missed Connections. New Opportunities

All day yesterday, I kept getting reminders: Trevor Noah – Loud & Clear Tour. Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, IN.

Of course, the show and all the other events scheduled for IDEA week have been canceled. I had even purchased tickets for One Republic (C loves that song Counting Stars and I thought, why not, she’ll have fun). I am sorry that we missed Trevor Noah. I think adding his interpretation of blackness—how it has changed and been challenged since coming to the United States—would have contributed to our class discussions this week in an intriguing way. I am sorry that I did not get to take you all out to dinner before the concert; sit around a table and eat with you and get to know each of you a little more outside of the classroom setting. Sneaking small peaks of your homes has been lovely, but I would have much preferred chatting together over a meal. The Trevor Noah event is just one more addition to the now long list of events canceled because of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

I am not writing this post to lament what we have lost. Yes, I am disappointed about not seeing each of you on campus, about the events that we did not get to attend, about being stuck in the house, but I am also really proud of how this class has been able to adapt to the online version of the course. This blog, our class blog, which started off as a dairy of your readings each week has truly evolved and become more; a point of interaction for each of us as we practice social distancing. Discussing The Commitments today reminded me about the importance of focusing on what we have gained during this difficult and strange moment.

In our conversation today, I wanted to make sure we concentrated on how Doyle frames class in the text. The Irish are “the niggers of Europe,” because of their marginalized class status. The emphasis is not a political declaration of race, but an acknowledgement of their poverty and oppression. Yet as we focused on the economics in the text, we did not get a chance to discuss the music as much as I would have liked to. And this is where our blog has become quite useful: A chance to communicate with each other in-between class meetings. So, between now and our next class on Wednesday, I want you think about the music. The movie gives us a much better way to access the music but there are a couple of other videos that I want us to think about, if we can.

U2. I have yet to meet one person from Ireland that likes this band. I never was a U2 fan. I know many of their songs—they were a very popular band—and a friend took me to see them once in concert (it was weird, the PopMart tour, I think). Yet nearly every person I have met in Ireland has nothing good to say about this band. They are mentioned dismissively in the book only a couple of times. Once here: “It had been a great gig. Hot Press told Jimmy. Dublin needed something like The Commitments, to get U2 out of its system. He’d be doing a review for the next issue. Then he asked for his two pounds back” (111-12). This mention, in particular, reminded me that the most popular band in the world, at the time, was not equally appreciated in their home country. Yet U2, like The Commitments, are very much influenced by black American soul music. Shortly after this book is published, U2 releases a documentary discussing their identity as a band, including their connection to black America and black American music. What are your thoughts? There are some interesting connections between U2, the U2 film, and The Commitments.

a. U2: Rattle and Hum – Trailer The way in which all the American cities listed connects to The Commitments, no?

b. U2: Rattle and Hum This is the only digital version of the film that I can locate. If you are interested, watch the entire video (1 hr 39min). U2 plays with a gospel band in Harlem, they go to Graceland (Elvis’s relationship to the history of black American music of course has to be considered in this scene), they play with BB King, and sing their tribute song to Martin Luther King Jr (some of the facts of King’s death are wrong in that song). Sunday, Bloody Sunday is played as well, which connects to other topics we have discussed. Bono particularly dismisses Irish Americans and their understanding of Irishness when they sing this song.

Phil Lynott. I only discovered Lynott and Thin Lizzy after I lived in Ireland, but I knew some of their music. I just had no idea that the band singing Boys are Back in Town was an Irish rock band and that their lead singer was black. Irish, yes. But a black guy. Jimmy dismisses Phil Lynott as having any influence on The Commitments because he was not soul (67). What do you think? In The Deportees, the story “Home to Harlem” discusses someone like Lynott (and in some ways must be inspired by Lynott’s family). Irish and Black. The story begins, “He couldn’t find himself on the registration form” (179). What box do you tick when you’re black, and Irish, and emigrating to the United States? Declan ends up ticking other. Here’s a link to Thin Lizzy Boys are Back in Town. And just for fun, Thin Lizzy’s version of Whiskey in the Jar is my absolute favorite.

The use of Chain Gang by The Commitments irritated me. Of all the songs that they sing, this song is particularly connected to black American history and culture. What are your thoughts? Here’s the Sam Cooke version.

Any way. Those are some additional thoughts that I had about The Commitments after our conversation today. This book, unlike most of the titles that we have discussed this term, takes place during my lifetime. While I knew nothing of Ireland at the time the book was published, there is one detail listed in the text that connects to my own childhood memories. When Jimmy meets Joey, he is “wearing a Jesse Jackson campaign T-Shirt” (28). I share a picture of myself wearing one of those shirts from the 1980s.